The value of a liberal arts major depends on the student and the school

by Grace

I am a fan of a rigorous liberal arts college education, which I think provides a strong foundation for many careers.  However, the value of a liberal arts major depends on several factors, including the student, the curriculum, and/or the prestige of the college.

The student needs to exploit the value of his liberal arts education.

But it’s important to remember that whether you major in accounting at a public university or French at a liberal arts college, it’s up to you to extract the maximum value of your college education.  I don’t think the business major who spends four years getting C’s at a public university (and not doing much else other than having fun) will be in a better post-college career position than the philosophy major at a liberal arts college who pushes herself to learn to think critically, to write compellingly, and to forge relationships with faculty who can offer career guidance and write letters of recommendation.  Those students deserve more credit or blame for the outcomes than their colleges do.

The curriculum needs to have high standards.

Only a rigorous liberal arts curriculum that focuses on teaching critical thinking and communication skills adds real value to a college degree.  Drifting through easy classes where professors give out A’s and B’s as long as students show up and turn in the occasional mediocre assignment will not result in a high-quality education.

A  liberal arts degree from an elite college gets more respect from employers.

Although many selective colleges have also succumbed to grade inflation, at least the degrees they award still serve as markers that many employers use to screen potential employees.  And while there are certainly exceptions, elite schools do generally offer a higher quality education in liberal arts than many less selective institutions do.  The teaching, curriculum, high standards, and peer influence usually make the difference.

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3 Comments to “The value of a liberal arts major depends on the student and the school”

  1. The undergrad “business” majors are often the weakest students in any school, so it would not be surprising if the average philosophy major was more useful to a business.

    Bonnie, the comparable comparison in CS is between elite schools in engineering and the run-of-the-mill schools. Are MIT, Stanford, Caltech, CMU, Berkeley, … producing better CS undergrads than less prestigious schools? A lot of people think so, even if they attribute it to better incoming students, rather than better instruction.

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  2. Bonnie, in asserting that the quality of education is better at more selective schools I was only referring to liberal arts majors. And a big reason for that may simply be the quality of the incoming students. To be totally elitist about this, I imagine a philosophy class of SAT 2200-average students is going to be of a higher caliber than one composed of SAT 1700-average students.

    Engineering and other fields may not necessarily be similarly differentiated in terms of quality of education. Except in some instances as gasstation mentioned, there may be only minor differences. Also, the sorting process for engineering degrees probably means that only top students will graduate from any college. Not so with many other majors. And does it really affect her job prospects very much if a nurse graduated from a very selective institution or from a directional university? I don’t think so.

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  3. “Also, the sorting process for engineering degrees probably means that only top students will graduate from any college.”

    That is very true. There is a huge attrition rate in college STEM, and that seems to be intentional. I’ve told the story before of my cousin who went to a famous science college to do science, was intimidated by the brainpower of her classmates, and then turned into a political science major. You see this happen over and over again with students who start with challenging STEM majors and then bail out after realizing that they can’t hack it. That doesn’t happen to English majors, even though a good English program is very demanding in terms of reading and writing requirements.

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